Teamwork helps lab go green
About a year ago, Professor Ichiro Nishimura and his colleagues had a crisis of conscience. At the Weintraub Center for Reconstructive Biotechnology, where they do groundbreaking work to rebuild the faces of people maimed by illness, injury or birth defects, the researchers were used to thinking of their mission as noble and beneficial. But they weren't as happy about their role in the environment, Nishimura said.
"It's so strange -other businesses are doing [sustainability] as a matter of survival, but science is far behind for some reason," Nishimura said. "I'm very surprised."
By Alison Hewitt
"We want to be good citizens, but we are in many ways harmful," recalled Nishimura, a professor of advanced prosthodontics in the School of Dentistry, where the center is housed. "We are not sustainable."
That may not be true much longer. An unprecedented collaboration among the Weintraub Center, the campus Sustainability Committee, UCLA facilities and purchasing departments, and student activists is finding ways to help the lab change its practices. Cully Nordby, chair of the Sustainability Committee, called the evolution of the project, from grassroots to campuswide, "the way this all should work."
"They're becoming UCLA's pilot study for greening a lab," Nordby said.
Chemicals, lab regulations and safety procedures make greening a lab a daunting prospect. For example, typical sound-and-motion sensors for turning off lights in empty rooms emit a noise that upsets lab rats. Lab-size freezers don't come with Energy Star ratings. Recycling plastic is trickier when some of the plastics touch biohazards. And Weintraub scientists weren't sure whether safety rules and research standards allowed them to turn off energy-draining lab hoods that suck up hazardous fumes.
Then Nishimura contacted the Sustainability Committee, and everyone began to connect.
The facilities department got involved to provide motion-only light sensors to the lab. The purchasing department is researching how to use UCLA's clout as a big-time buyer to get efficiency ratings on lab freezers, as well as details about recycled content in plastic pipettes and plastic culture dishes. Sensors have been installed on the fume hoods to turn them off safely.
Student research teams from the Education for Sustainable Living Program also put the lab under their microscope. Student and program co-director Edward Murphy noted that, among their discoveries, they found out that thousands of plastic pipettes and culture dishes can be safely recycled.
Nishimura will speak about the center's progress at a statewide higher education conference this summer, where he'll get to compare notes with a leader in green labs — researchers from UC Santa Barbara.
"It's so strange — other businesses are doing this as a matter of survival, but science is far behind for some reason," Nishimura said. "I'm very surprised."
Published: Tuesday, June 24, 2008